A day amongst whales

I was at the Natural History Museum in London this week for two meetings and undertook my traditional excursion whilst in the museum to see the model of the blue whale, the largest animal in existence. A colleague once suggested that this ritual was a “small boy” thing – that the males of our species never grow out of our fascination with the biggest, fastest and fiercest experiences.   But she was wrong. I go to see this model because it gives me a sense of perspective: I am utterly dwarfed in the presence of the largest organism the world has ever seen.


The model of the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) in the Mammal Gallery at the Natural History Museum in London

The model is, apparently, 28 metres long. For simplicity, we’ll round this down to 20 metres, which means it is a little over one order of magnitude larger than me (180 cm).   I, in turn, am approximately two orders of magnitude larger than most of the invertebrate larvae and other bugs which crawl around our river beds, whilst they are about two orders of magnitude larger than the algae on which many of them feed.   The smallest algae are about an order of magnitude smaller still so, very roughly, six orders of magnitude separate the largest whales from the smallest algae.

If the blue whale was a midge larva, such as we encountered in the River Ehen last month (see “A winter wonderland in the River Ehen”), then the child standing in the front left of the image would be about the same size as some of the diatoms that I photographed from the same site (see “Food for Thought in the River Ehen”). It is also, roughly, the same as the difference in size between a cow and the blades of grass that she eats. That gives us a very rough idea of what an invertebrate “sees” as it crawls across a submerged stone (although, of course, an insect’s eye is very different to ours).

My pilgrimages to the Mammal Gallery also include a brief genuflection in front of the display case containing a fossil jaw of a now-extinct relative of the Blue Whale, Basilosaurus.   This belonged to a sub-order of the cetaceans called the Archaeocetes that finally died out about 23 million years ago. I have a soft spot for this organism as it provided me with a pseudonym, Basil O’Saurus, during the nine years that I wrote a column for the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’s magazine In Practice, as well as my Twitter name, @basil0saurus (note that it is a zero, not an “oh” here).


The Natural History Museum’s display of a fossil jaw from Basilosaurus plus a scale model.   The jawbone is about 45 cm long.


A funny thing happened on my way to the Natural History Museum. I was reading Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw on the tube during the journey and, as the story approaches its end, we are told that Eliza Doolittle married Freddy Eynsford Hill and they opened a flower shop “in the arcade of a railway station not very far from the Victoria and Albert Museum”.   The V&A is directly opposite the Natural History Museum on Exhibition Road so the railway station can only be South Kensington, the station to which I was heading.   And, sure enough, there are still bunches of flowers on sale in the arcade although it seems that Eliza’s flower shop has now become a convenience store.


The arcade at South Kensington station: the location of Eliza Doolittle’s flower shop?


122 days to go …

According to the statistics from WordPress, people from 110 countries looked at this blog last year. This means that readers in 109 of those countries might have little interest in my promise to cover the environmental implications of this year’s UK general election on 5 May; however, a promise is a promise, so bear with me for a few minutes.

Here are a few points to watch out for when the manifestos start appearing in a couple of months:

  1. What will happen to the UK environment if we vote in parties that want to leave the EU? This will be one of the key battlegrounds of the forthcoming campaign but, curiously, I don’t think there will be immediate negative effects arising from a decision to leave the EU. This is because all EU environmental legislation has already been transposed into UK law and provides the framework that underpins how we manage the environment.   However, belonging to the EU means that the UK has to fulfil a number of obligations, which has protected some aspects of environmental regulation from the worst ravages of the public sector cuts over the past few years.
  2. Leaving the EU will make the environment vulnerable to manifesto pledges to reduce red tape.   Whilst I recognise the need to keep businesses competitive, we need to recognise that what one person sees as sensible regulation of the environment may be perceived by someone else as unnecessary bureaucracy and, therefore, ripe for repeal.   Less regulation will encourage businesses to externalize their environmental costs which may look good on their profit and loss accounts in the short-term, but will have longer term consequences.   I also doubt that UKIP’s promise to “negotiate a bespoke trade agreement with the EU” will have any chance of success if the environmental costs of this trade are not taken into consideration.
  3. A bigger challenge in the short-term is the state of the economy and the resulting squeeze on public spending, as I have already mentioned (see “When Right is not right”).  What we need to look for in the party manifestos is creative thinking about how to manage the environment with fewer resources. Don’t be suckered by weasel words about increasing “efficiency”. The public sector is already working at full stretch and any further “efficiency” can only mean that less can be done.
  4. Watch out, too, for words about increased spending on flood defence. There are situations around the country where improvements to flood defences are needed but also, I suspect, marginal constituencies where the memories of flooding are raw enough for such promises to deliver votes (see “More about floods …”).   However, because flood defence is a function of the Environment Agency, we will need to read the small print of any such promises to make sure that this is not funded by a redistribution of budget that would result in less money for environmental protection.
  5. And, finally, climate change will feature in most manifestos at some point. UKIP are, at least, refreshingly frank about their intention to repeal the Climate Change Act . However, I have concerns about policy towards climate change across all the major parties. As for flood defence, it is not that I don’t think that something should be done; rather that we need to watch that steps to mitigate climate change are not made at the expense of dealing with other environmental problems.   I have a suspicion that politicians like climate change because the timescales are such that they reap the rewards of bold policy initiatives without running the risk of being judged on the results.   We will need to unpack the rhetoric within all the manifestos to make sure that the politicians are focussed on the here and now and not just showboating.

I have already declared myself as being pro-Europe (see “What has the European Union ever done for us?”) but, otherwise, I go into the election campaign undecided about how to vote.   I will be reading all the manifestos with interest …

Normal service will resume in the next post.